Betty was born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands on March 23, 1921. She grew up with her parents and two older brothers in Hilversum, a suburb about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam. She has fond childhood memories, that included celebrating holidays with her large extended family. Like most teens today, she participated in activities like tap dancing and tennis. In 1940, just days before Nazi Germany invaded The Netherlands, Betty met her soon-to-be fiancé Abraham “Al” Cohen at a dance in Amsterdam. Under Nazi occupation, anti-Jewish laws proliferated throughout the country. In 1942, Dutch Jews were required to move to Amsterdam. Many Jews went into hiding at this time and were subsequently caught and deported. Betty and Al’s families hid together in a small attic, with a total of 16 people for two years. One of her brothers and his wife left their baby son in the care of the Dutch Resistance and attempted to flee to Switzerland; they were never heard from again. Betty, Al, and their families tried to make the best of their desperate situation while in hiding. They drew, kept dairies, gathered news, and supported one another. Despite losing the war, Nazi Germany focused resources and man power on finding Jews in hiding. Betty and the others were eventually denounced, and the Gestapo arrested them in April 1944. They were then sent to Westerbork Transit Camp, and from there they were forced onto cattle cars to an unknown destination. Betty remembers the wretched sounds of mothers screaming, babies crying and the smell of people dying around her. There was no food or water. While on the train, her father told her “I don’t know where we’re going, but it cannot be good. I don’t know if we’ll see each other again. Go and spend some time with your mother.” The destination of the train was Auschwitz-Birkenau. When they got off the cars, they had to go through a selection to determine who would work and who would be immediately mass murdered. Her farewell to her parents in the cattle car was the last time she saw her parents. A number was tattooed on her arm, taking the place of her name. Her body hair was shorn off. She was given a thin garment to wear. She tried to learn information about her family through the prisoner network of Auschwitz-Birkenau and heard that Al’s brother had died. One day, a guard asked the barrack of women to volunteer if they were married. After hiding with Al, Betty considered herself married to him and raised her hand. She was sent to Auschwitz Block 10 where she was forced to undergo inhumane medical sterilization experiments. In January 1945, to flee the Russian advance near the camp, the Nazis sent Betty and other inmates on a death march to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Walking in the freezing winter, they were given no food or water, and were forced to eat grass along the way. After enduring a second death march in May, they were liberated. Betty returned to Hilversum where she was welcomed by Al who had been left for dead in Auschwitz and liberated by the Russians in January 1945. Al located Betty’s nephew, Louis, who had safely remained in hiding, and they adopted him. They officially married soon after. On their wedding day, Betty’s aunt and uncle and a few cousins attended, as they were her only surviving family members from her once large extended family None of Al’s family survived. Betty, Al, and Louis immigrated to the United States in 1948. Despite the experimentation at Auschwitz, Betty and Al had two children, a boy Jerry in 1949 and a daughter, Hedy in 1953. A great, great- grandmother now, Betty celebrated her 101st birthday last month!
When Betty Cohen ends her talks, she likes to remind young students to never leave the house without saying goodbye to loved ones. She says that she remembers being a teenager once and having a fight with her mom and leaving the house mad. She reminds people that “You never know what will happen and it never hurts to say I love you”.